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(how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference)

Did Jesus promise to return within the lifetime of his disciples?

A decent sermon at a well known central London Anglican church Sunday night was spoilt, in my view, by the excited closing announcement that Jesus is coming back soon. Apart from the fact that the dogma is questionable on biblical grounds, which I’ll come to, I don’t understand how or why such a reputable church would think it necessary or plausible or wise to proclaim so confidently that finally, at this point in history, after centuries of us getting it wrong, Jesus is about to come back. It seems to me that we would have to be pretty sure—on some sort of collective ecclesial basis—that we’ve got it right this time before raising false hopes yet again and subverting our long term missional commitment to creation-as-we-know-it. Otherwise, this sort of fitful eschatological guesswork strikes me as plain irresponsible.

On top of that, I chanced upon this short and unhelpful video by Michael Kruger addressing the question “Did Jesus promise to return within the lifetime of his disciples?” Here we get to the matter of the biblical grounds for the belief that the church is still waiting for Jesus to return any time soon.

Kruger is responding to sceptics who say that Jesus expected to return within the lifetime of his disciples and that he got this badly wrong. Kruger thinks that we do not have to accept this analysis.

He starts by saying that the sceptics don’t understand how eschatological language works.

Jesus does talk about how he could come back at any moment, he does talk about the imminence of his coming, but there’s nothing that binds him to the idea that he had to come back while his disciples were still alive.

Yes, Jesus asserts—in the Olivet discourse for example—that those standing by him would experience “these things”. But “these things”, Kruger argues, were not the second coming but the trials and tribulations of the interadvent period—in particular, the turmoil leading up to the destruction of the temple. But we should not conclude from this that Jesus had to come back in the lifetime of his disciples.

When we look at the New Testament and Jesus talks about it being the “last days”, we have to remember that the phrase “last days” is not about the quantity of time. It’s about an eschatological concept, that the next thing that is will happen on an eschatological level is that Jesus will return.

There are three issues here. First, is Jesus bound by his language to the idea that he would “come” in the lifetime of his disciples? Secondly, is the coming of the Son of Man included in “these things”? Thirdly, how are we to understand the phrase “last days”?

1. There’s nothing that binds him to this? Really?

It’s very difficult to understand how the sayings about imminence do not bind Jesus to the idea that what he was talking about would happen in the lifetime of his disciples: “you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23); “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matt. 16:28); “there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power” (Mk. 9:1; cf. Lk. 9:27); “this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matt. 24:34).

There is nothing peculiar about the grammar or the logic of these statements. We can compare the construction in Numbers 35:12 LXX, where we have the same aorist subjunctive verbs and the conjunctive phrase heōs an: “the one that commits murder will not die until (heōs an) he stands before the congregation for judgment”. They mean exactly what they say: some of Jesus’ disciples would live to see the coming of the Son of Man or the coming the kingdom of God. To suggest that Jesus was not bound to this idea is to say that he didn’t mean what he said.

When would be the “last days”?

Jesus doesn’t actually use the expression “last days”. He makes reference to “those days”, but this is clearly in the context of the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple: alas for women who are pregnant “in those days”; if “those days” were not cut short, no one in Israel would survive (Matt. 24:19, 22).

The phrase “last days” occurs, however, in the passage from Joel quoted by Peter in his Pentecost speech (Acts 2:17):

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. (Acts 2:17)

Joel describes a time—a “great and awesome day of the Lord”—when there would be signs in the heavens, some would survive the catastrophe that was coming on Jerusalem, after which God would “restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem” (Joel 2:28-32). Peter clearly thought that the pouring out of the Spirit indiscriminately on all Jesus’ followers—men and women, young and old, male and female servants—signalled the beginning of these “last days”, the beginning of a historical process that would culminate in the destruction of Jerusalem and the restoration of God’s people.

Kruger takes no account of context. He makes a hypothetical, theologically motivated distinction between “quantity of time” and events on an “eschatological level”, but what determines the meaning of the phrase “last days” in these passages is the narrative setting in which it is used, which is the story of the judgment and restoration of national Israel.

So if Jesus was expected by early Jewish-Christian tradition to “come” in the last days, it is quite nonsensical for a preacher in London two thousand years later to declare that Jesus is coming soon.

What were “these things”?

One way to answer the question “How does eschatological language work?” is to look at how the same language works in the Old Testament and in other Jewish writings from the period. There is no reason to think that Jesus, as a first century Jewish prophet with a penchant for apocalyptic imagery, was playing by an entirely different set of linguistic rules.

For example, the saying about a “great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21) sounds very much like Daniel’s prophecy of a catastrophe that would come upon Israel:

At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. (Dan. 12:1)

The thought is echoed not only in the Gospels but also in other first century Jewish writings:

And there shall come upon them a second visitation and wrath, such as has not befallen them from the beginning until that time, in which He will stir up against them the king of the kings of the earth and one that rules with great power, who shall crucify those who confess to their circumcision. (T. Mos. 8:1)

…it had so come to pass, that our city Jerusalem had arrived at a higher degree of felicity than any other city under the Roman government, and yet at last fell into the sorest of calamities again. Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were (Jos., War 1.11–12)

This strongly suggests that Jews around the time of Jesus viewed the crisis facing Israel in the first century through the lens of Daniel’s prophetic narrative. Whatever direct relevance it may have had in the second century BC, it provided a powerful way to assimilate these new circumstances into the ongoing story of God’s purposes.

The eschatological language of a “son of man” figure coming with the clouds of heaven works in exactly the same way. It is part of the same prophetic reimagining of immediate historical experience.

Israel has come under severe pressure from a regional pagan power to abandon its ancestral worship. Large numbers of Jews are happy to apostatise, but there are many righteous Jews who remain faithful to the covenant even at the cost of persecution and death (cf. Dan. 11:29-39). The meaning of Daniel’s vision is that eventually the pagan oppressor will be judged by God and destroyed, the persecuted righteous will be vindicated before the throne of the Ancient of Days, and they will receive kingdom and glory and will rule over the nations. Moreover, many of those Jews who died in the course of the conflict will be raised, either to everlasting life or to everlasting shame and contempt (Dan. 12:2).

This points to the fact that the political-religious crisis facing Israel and the coming of the Son of Man were inseparable; they belonged to the same apocalyptic vision and the same historical narrative.

To assign the tribulation of the build-up to the war against Rome to the first century and the coming of the Son of Man to a remote and speculative future makes a complete nonsense of eschatological language. It is not only that there are no good exegetical reasons for driving a wedge between the destruction of Jerusalem and the signs in the heavens—where, indeed, Matthew says that “immediately after (eutheōs… meta) the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man…” (Matt. 24:29–30). It breaks the whole narrative coherence of the apocalyptic vision.

So have the sceptics won this debate? Not at all. The image of one like a son of man coming on the clouds signifies the vindication and empowerment of the suffering righteous at the time when YHWH would judge and restore Israel and defeat his enemies. Jesus applied this image and its associated narrative to himself in the first place, but he extended it further to include the followers whom he would send out to the proclaim just this impending event both to Israel and to the nations of the Greek-Roman world: “he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Matt. 24:31).

Jesus is telling part of the story here, in apocalyptic language that would have been familiar and meaningful to many in Israel. The early church would take the argument a significant step further when they predicted that Jesus would “come”, just as YHWH “came” in the Old Testament, to judge the nations and be glorified across the Greek-Roman world. But that’s all behind us. Our eschatological hope now is simply in the creator God who will finally remake heaven and earth.

Image of The Coming of the Son of Man: New Testament Eschatology for an Emerging Church

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Wipf & Stock Pub (2012), Paperback, 282 pages, $33.00

Comments

There is no reason to think that Jesus, as a first century Jewish prophet with a penchant for apocalyptic imagery, was playing by an entirely different set of linguistic rules.

Jesus broke all kinds of rules, such as the expectation of a national deliverance for Israel; the expectation of a Davidic warrior messiah; the expectation of vengeance on Israel’s enemies; his contradiction of the clear teaching of the law.

He also rewrote the expected outcome of Daniel’s prophecy. Israel was not “delivered” but destroyed in the Jewish War. The non-orthodox followers of Jesus were saved, but not as followers of the Torah, and therefore not in any recognisable sense as a new Israel.

With regard to the “imminent coming” quotes, there are other explanations of their meaning apart from the binary “physical return of Jesus” or your own interpretation, which make perfectly good sense. Probably better sense, given that Jesus was consistently and subversively derailing the story of Israel.

To put it simply, Jesus did not acommodate the “predictions” of Daniel about Israel’s distant future in a way that was consistent with Daniel or anything else in the O.T. In the words of NASA: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Could Jesus return at any time? I think so. It would cretainly be a problem for those who doubt it if he did. Should we encourage such a belief? Well yes, provided it does not play to a fantasy of escape from troubles. It is still “the blessed hope” of Titus 2:13, and makes sense of much of the NT, provided the interpretive context is wide enough.

It might be worth avoiding certain central London Anglican churches and American Reformed Evangelical video clips for health reasons though.

The examples of rule-breaking that you list are matters of content rather than language. In John’s Gospel we clearly have a rather different linguistic environment, for whatever reason, but I don’t see anything in the Synoptic Gospels to suggest that the writers thought Jesus made a significant break with his natural biblical-Jewish linguistic context. Historically, it is reasonable to assume that he used language, including prophetic and apocalyptic language, like other Jews of his time. If we want to argue otherwise, we have to provide positive evidence.

For example, do we have any positive reasons to think that Jesus meant his saying about the coming of the Son of Man to be taken literally when clearly for Daniel this was symbolic visionary language? As far as I can see, there is nothing in the texts that makes the assumption of linguistic continuity implausible.

I would also dispute the examples of rule-breaking that you give. I think that Jesus was indeed talking about national deliverance and a reformation of national Israel. If he thought of himself as the “son” seated at the right hand of YHWH, that can only mean that he thought of himself as king of Israel. Even the manner in which this reformation and restoration would be achieved was anticipated in Daniel and in other Jewish writings. The idea that Israel would be saved by the suffering of the righteous was not invented by Jesus.

But we’ve been here before and have probably said enough about it.

Just keeping you on your toes Andrew. I’d forgotten about the “We’ve been here before” post, though I still hold to what I said then. I think in your zeal to promote a point of view, you overlook what is strikingly obvious about Jesus: he was totally different from any previous OT figure, he taught and practised a very different ethic from any OT precedent, and there was little or nothing in the OT narrative that made him a recognisable fulfilment of its trajectory. That’s why even his disciples found him so perplexing.

BTW I don’t hold to a literal interpretation of the “coming” of the Son of Man in the passages you cite. As I said, there are other than binary explanations of these passages.

A doubtless less-decent sermon in a well-known ( though probably less reputable ) central Doha, Qatar evangelical-pentecostal church last Friday morning ( we do church to coincide with our Qatari friends taking their principal day of prayer ) was spoilt, in my view, when a slightly odd series of non-sequiturs - that, given there are some 7 billion people currently on the planet, “give or take”, and some circa 2 billion Christians, who only each lead an average of one person to make a commitment to Christ per year, thus it will take some 278.4 years to convert the whole world to Christianity - was concluded by the preacher saying he, for one, did not want to wait that long for Christ’s return. This notion was greeted with considerably expressed affirmation.

Apart from what seemed a somewhat loaded slant on Christ’s commission to go and make disciples of all nations, i was baffled both by the arithmetic and even more by a peculiar logic that seemed to render the Messiah ineligible to make His return until every single living person has been converted to faith in Him by each of us. ( By the way, do you know if this dogma is also “questionable on biblical grounds”, or even if it has any foundation in Scripture ? )

So, with that bafflement still fresh, I turned to your blog : and although I enjoyed reading your piece here as far as it went, having cogitated on it since, cannot help being dissatisfied with its reluctance to resolve or explain when, if you sense He is not coming back soon, and that this “eschatological guesswork strikes me as plain irresponsible”, then can you say if you surmise either that He has already or that He is still due to return ?

Or am I rather missing the point ? If so, please will you point me to another piece that covers this ?

Richard, wonderful to hear from you! When are you coming to see us again—in the literal sense of “coming”?

I can’t help you with the arithmetic. Or can’t be bothered. But here’s what I think about converting everyone before Christ returns: Will preaching the gospel to all the nations trigger the end?

As for what I wrote above, no, I don’t think it makes sense of the biblical texts to claim in the twenty-first century that Jesus is still to return. I think that the language of a Son of Man figure coming on the clouds and associated imagery had reference to the vindication of Jesus and his persecuted followers in the context of a) judgment on Jerusalem and b) judgment on the ancient pagan world. Our eschaton (“end”) will be the renewal of heaven and earth, the final putting right of a corrupted creation. There is no coming of the Son of Man in Revelation 20:11-21:8.

By the way, if I’d known you read this stuff, I would have been a little more circumspect.

Hmm, well yes, I love that directive : look to John’s big “new heaven and new earth” passage for any tallies with all the “soon return” predicts - as you say, notable for their unarguable absence there. But then again - are you sure ? : turn just one page and chapter 22 more than makes up for that lack with no less than three categorical “coming soon”s - almost more than in the rest of the NT put together !!!

What do we make of it ? That 21 is looking way, way beyond I suppose, while 22’s epilogue is grounded firmly back at Patmos, making that more imminent and local foretelling - your “historic narrative” again ?

And no - forget the arithmetic - it’s not that, and anyway that’s the easy bit for me. It’s the other stuff I don’t get - I want to know and understand, but it is still not at all clear … But please do NOT go all circumspect - then it will get very much MORE confusing !!!

( Sorry to have been so out of touch - I would literally love to come and see you again soon … )

Yes, that’s how I see it. Actually, I think perhaps only Revelation 21:1-8 describes the new creation, beyond jugment on Rome and the long thousand year period. But certainly by the time we get to 22:6, we are back on Patmos waiting for the vindication of the persecuted saints and the defeat of the pagan enemies of the churches.

I understand you think Jesus was using metaphorical language when speaking of his return, and he and his followers would have understood this; however, I see two weaknesses with this position:

1. Both before and after his resurrection, Jesus existed in a human body, so I see no reason to think his followers would equate the manner of his return on the clouds with the manner of Yahweh’s traveling on a cloud since Yahweh was recognized as an invisible spirit.

2. I think Paul’s admonition to stay single and the early believers’ willingness to sell their properties and share the proceeds are strong indicators that Jesus’ disciples expected him to literally return in the first century to establish his reign over Israel and reward the faithful.

1. If the language of the Son of Man coming with the clouds is an intentional allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, then it is this vision which, in the first place, should determine the manner of the coming. For Daniel the vision is not of a coming or return to earth, either physically or spiritually; it is of the coming of the persecuted saints of the Most High to the throne of God to receive vindication and a kingdom. Jesus is simply saying that people will “see” something like what Daniel saw: the vindication of the suffering righteous one. He then extends this core idea to include the suffering disciples by speaking of the sending out of the angels to gather the scattered elect. It is only in some of the parables that you get the concrete idea of the master actually coming back to punish or reward his servants. Otherwise, it is noteworthy that no attempt is made to describe a bodily coming or explore the implications.

2. I don’t see that that follows at all. The reason for staying single is made explicit: the churches faced an imminent time of distress and upheaval (1 Cor. 7:29-31). I’m sure he expected the persecutions to end sooner then they did, but I don’t see anything in Paul’s argument here or in the practice of the early church that necessarily presupposes the bodily coming of Jesus.

I don’t think your response is sufficient. It ignores 1 Corinthians 7:26-31. Paul obviously thought Jesus was coming soon.

Also, Jesus said he would return while some of his disciples were still living and they would sit on thrones and reign with him. If he was talking about a metaphorical return and reigning with his disciples from heaven, he would need to metaphorically return and literally kill his disciples who were still living so they could reign with him in heaven. This cannot be supported by scripture, but the resurrection of the dead saints to reign with him can.

Next, although you’ve come up with an alternate explanation, I think Acts 1:11 also demonstrates that early believers thought Jesus would return bodily from heaven.

Finally, it’s one thing to say Jesus coming in the clouds is an allusion to Daniel 7:13-14, which I suspect it probably is, but it’s another thing to say if it is an allusion, the details in the NT should agree with the detail in the OT. That’s not how the NT writers generally used OT scriptures. It’s kind of like reading parables, they often lose their effectiveness if you move away from the big picture and try to assign relevance to all the details.

I’m not following you. There are two issues here. One is whether the “coming” was physical/literal or symbolic/prophetic. The other is whether it would happen soon or not. Paul certainly expected something to happen soon, but there’s nothing in 1 Corinthians 7:26-31 to suggest that he expected a bodily return of Jesus to earth. My argument is that the impending foreseen events were described and interpreted by means of a prophetic centred around a reapplication of Daniel’s vision of the coming of a son of man figure to the throne of God to receive vindication and a kingdom.

In Acts 1:11 the angels only say that Jesus “will come” (not “will come again” or “will return”) in the way that you saw him going into heaven. Perhaps this is a “coming” somewhat like the parousiathat Paul describes in stock apocalyptic terms in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17. But the point may only be that Jesus “will come” (eleusetai) as he went—that is, with the clouds of heaven, like the son of man in Daniel’s vision, who “was coming (ērcheto) upon the clouds of heaven” (Dan. 7:13 LXX).

That’s not how the NT writers generally used OT scriptures.

Can you give some examples of New Testament writers taking a symbolic/prophetic vision from the Old Testament and turning it into a prediction of a literal or physical event?

“Can you give some examples of New Testament writers taking a symbolic/prophetic vision from the Old Testament and turning it into a prediction of a literal or physical event?”

You’re missing my point. It’s not about whether or not NT writers took symbolic/prophetic visions from the OT and turned them into predictions of literal or physical events. Likewise, it’s not about whether or not NT writers took predictions of literal or physical events from the OT and turned them into symbolic/prophetic visions. It was not nearly this precise. My point is that we see NT authors finding connections in places we might not and in ways that we might not. Their methodology wouldn’t be viewed as acceptable today, but it was in the first century, at least among Jews.

Does my second paragraph above about Jesus reigning with his disciples not make sense? (It makes sense to me, but maybe there’s something I’m not getting.)

My point is that we see NT authors finding connections in places we might not and in ways that we might not.

But I still think you need to illustrate that and show how it’s relevant to the question of how Jesus might have used Daniel’s vision of a son of man figure coming on the clouds of heaven. On what specific literary-inguistic-exegetical grounds might we argue that Jesus used the imagery differently from Daniel?

I’m not sure about the disciples reigning in heaven. The saying about the twelve thrones (Matt. 19:28) is not connected with the Son of Man tradition. Jesus doesn’t directly address the question of whether all twelve would still be alive. Isn’t there a danger of forcing continuity between unrelated prophetic motifs?

Also the “twelve” have such great symbolic significance, as representative of restored Israel, that I’m not sure we should endeavour to apply it beyond its immediate context. But if we must, then those of the twelve still living when the Son of Man was publicly vindicated in the eyes of Israel and the nations would eventually die and could then take their seats in heaven. But that seems to me to be going beyond the interpretive requirements of the text.

I think you’re trying to hard to make Daniel’s prophesy apply to Jesus. This is making you try to force prophetic continuity where there is none. Maybe Jesus alluded to Daniel and maybe he didn’t, but we do know that Matthew records Jesus saying he would return while some of the disciples he was talking to were still alive (16:28) and in the new age to come they would rule with him on 12 thrones (19:28). Of course the 12 symbolizes the renewal of ancient Israel, but it’s clear the disciples believed there would be 12 real thrones, which explains their replacing Judas and asking who would sit at Jesus’ right hand in the kingdom.

Paul believed those disciples who were alive when Jesus returned would meet him and join his triumphal entry. (His use of “we” suggests he thought he might be one of those alive (1 Thess 4:15, 17). Paul also believed that those resurrected at Jesus’ return would be resurrected with eternal bodies and those living would also receive immortality at that time.

This narrative had nothing to do with Rome’s distant conversion to Christianity. It was a Jewish narrative that called for a new age of peace and prosperity in which Israel, ruled by a descendant of David, would rule over all her enemies. And all things would be set right.

I appreciate how you try to make everything fit the narrative you see; I just think the narrative is a whole lot simpler than the one you’ve come up with.

That is not a bad way of constructing the apocalyptic narrative. There is still, to my mind, a question about whether Jesus expected to reign on earth in the age to come, along with the disciples, rather than in heaven. I have assumed that the reign of Christ with the martyrs during the thousand years was understood as a reign in heaven at the right hand of God (Rev. 20:4-6). If this was to be a reign until the last enemy was destroyed (cf. 1 Cor. 15:24-28), then that does not come until the end of the thousand years. Perhaps Jesus saw it differently, but there’s no reason why the twelve “real” thrones shouldn’t have been in heaven, is there?

It is then a further question how we relate the apocalyptic narrative to history as we know it, which I think we still have to do if we are going to take the prophetic aspect of the New Testament seriously. Jesus, Paul and John had different perspectives on Israel’s future, but I don’t see either a literary or a historical objection to the idea that the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament, of the early church, embraced both an impending war against Rome and the subsequent conversion of the nations. These were the outcomes that mattered. Prophetic language may be imaginative and imprecise, and resurrection has introduced a novel development, but I still find a remarkable coherence between the stories that were told and the actual course of events.